Woman trapped in an elevator
Not long ago, I saw an old friend who recently realized she was—at last—totally happy at work, much to her surprise. "I have finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up," she told me. Ten years earlier, she had moved from Boston to the Midwest because of her husband's job. She didn't exactly kick and scream, but her jaw was surely clenched and she was trying to hold back tears. She had left behind everything and everyone familiar to her, including a rewarding if not perfect part-time position as a hospice worker. Her two sons, then ages 8 and 10, were similarly glum about the move. But move they had to, and move they did.

At first, as the family settled in, my friend stayed home, convinced that her dream of a fulfilling career was stalled, possibly over. But slowly, due to a mixture of financial necessity and boredom, she began to inch back into the workplace. A hospice offer fell through, so she worked as a medical center administrator for a few years and then as a community college admissions officer. She liked aspects of both jobs, but neither felt like a calling. Eventually, with a sigh of resignation, she took a job as a religion teacher at a parochial high school. I was a philosophy major in college, so this will do for now, she told herself.

Then a funny thing happened. My friend noticed that the career she'd backed into and settled for filled her with joy. She found teaching teenagers exhilarating—and sometimes downright hilarious. As we spoke, she was moved to tears recounting how she helped the son of a poor Iraqi family, a recent immigrant to the United States, get into a well-known university. She described reading each student's graduation essay, titled "How I Want to Live My Life."

"You should hear these kids," she said with pride. "They've got goals as big as the sky. They all seem to know what they want to be when they grow up. I've only just discovered that myself!"

She is 51 years old.

And that is exactly how it usually goes. You can figure out what you want to be when you grow up. You just have to be very grown up to do it.

Sure, there are women among us who decide they want to be federal judges at age 12 and get appointed by age 32. But they are more annoying than average. Most women discover their "exactly right" job through a messy, iterative process that involves years of experimentation and reinvention. They grab opportunities when they zip by; they make wrong turns and run twice as fast to correct them; they juggle the husbands and kids who show up along the way; and, very often, they sacrifice a piece of their own dreams on their families' behalf. Most women search, adjust, and search some more for the right career...until one day, it finally appears out of the fog of life's experiences.

In other words, there are no shortcuts to discovering the perfect job. There is just a journey.

Now, can you hurry that process along and make it less bumpy? Can you actually speed up finding the answer to the "What should I be when I grow up" question?

I think you can, but you need to embrace a practice that requires discipline, candor, and a bit of courage. Simply put: You need to relentlessly ask yourself five questions.